It’s long been a habit of mine to read a book before falling asleep. Usually, I end up staying up way too late absorbed in a book. Recently, I finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s “An Artist of the Floating World,” and, having enjoyed it, I immediately picked up my phone to search for other books he’d written. I recalled seeing people on Twitter recommending his 1995 book “The Unconsoled” and felt interested in reading it. I searched the Lancaster Library System and saw it was available at the Ephrata branch; however, it was after midnight and I was still feeling awake and in the mood to continue reading. So I went to one of my favorite resources: the Internet Archive. I searched for “The Unconsoled” and found it was among the 38 million books and texts available on the platform. Even better, it was available for me to check out right then.
The Internet Archive operates on a controlled digital lending method, which means if the archive has one copy of a book previously purchased and scanned in, such as “The Unconsoled,” then one person at a time can check it out, just like a brick-and-mortar library would lend physical books. (The Library System of Lancaster pays to use a couple different platforms like Libby to have access to ebooks for a limited time.)
I selected the option to check it out for one hour and within seconds I was reading. (Users can check books out for longer, or simply renew each hour.)
I’ve read dozens of books through the Internet Archives. I’ve also used the Internet Archive to stream dozens of Grateful Dead concerts. According to archive.org, the site features 14 million audio recordings and 240,000 live concerts. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has 725 billion web pages, freezing sites at a moment in time, even if an administrator makes updates and changes.
The site features millions of videos, as well as 2 million television news programs — an effort that began as a way to archive the events surrounding 9/11 documented on TV news. I recalled finding that particular section of the archive to be extremely helpful when writing a news story about the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
The Internet Archive is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that began in 1996 to archive the ephemeral content published on the internet. Soon the project moved on to include books. According to their website, Archive partners with more than 900 libraries and other organizations and scans in 4,000 books a day at 18 locations across the world.
Users can create a free account and begin reading books for research or just for pleasure. According to archive.org, the website has a special mission to provide access to books because not everyone has access to general or academic libraries with good collections.
The Internet Archive has been described as “a Library of Alexandria for the twenty-first century that, thanks to digital technologies and the Internet, excels in a way the Library of Alexandria never could. Through the Internet Archive, people who do not live in world capitals can access the same cultural and informational resources as those who do.”
It’s a great resource. Almost too good to be true. Sadly, the above quote is taken from a statement from a document filed with the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many physical libraries and book stores closed and schools went online, the Archive relaxed its controlled digital lending and created the “National Emergency Library” to allow more people to access books.
Benjamin Saracco, a research and digital services faculty librarian at an academic medical and hospital library in New Jersey, wrote an insightful blog post on archive.org about his experience directing front-line health care workers to the Internet Archive to find manuals on life-saving techniques when physical libraries were closed.
Two months into the creation of the “National Emergency Library,” a group of four major publishers including HarperCollins Publishers and Penguin Random House sued the Internet Archive for copyright infringement. Now, the lawsuit continues despite the Internet Archive reverting to the controlled digital lending method.
“We need libraries to be independent and strong, now more than ever, in a time of misinformation and challenges to democracy,” Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle stated during a press conference that was posted on the Archive’s blog last month. “That’s why we are defending the rights of libraries to serve our patrons where they are, online.”
The lawsuit has fueled a debate about the ownership of digital media. Everyone from copyright scholars to Max Collins — lead singer of Eve 6, of “Heart in A Blender” fame — recently weighed in on popula.com. Collins, comparing the situation to music streaming service Spotify, warned that the big publishers and tech platforms aren’t concerned with fair pay to artists. “The ramifications for the public are Orwellian,” he said.
I’ve enjoyed, and continue to enjoy (I’m still working my way through “The Unconsoled” one hour-long borrowing session at a time) the Internet Archives. And I appreciate their mission to be a digital Library of Alexandria. I just hope they don’t suffer the same fate.
Mike Andrelczyk is a staff writer for LNP | LancasterOnline. “Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.